Family Magazine

Up the River in Borneo, Part 1: the Wonder

By Behan Gifford @sailingtotem
We have heard such raves about traveling up the Kumai river in Kalimantan to visit orangutan rehabilitation centers that I almost expected to be disappointed. It was described with such glowing terms that I couldn’t imagine- and sometimes, with few words at all at all, from those who professed to be left speechless or at a loss to adequately describe the incredibly experience of traveling there. Lowering expectations was an instinct to avoid setting them too high, and then not having the reality life up to the hype.
Well, it lived up to the hype. I have never taken so many photos in such a short period of time. I have not strained my cheeks from smiling so long and hard since Jamie and I got married. It was all that.
The journey began by leaving Totem, something we fundamentally don’t like to do- especially alongside a frontier town, in a river where the current slides past at several knots, where large barges and tugs move traffic daily. Our guide provides a guard who will live aboard while we’re away, and we coach him on how to turn on the engine and move the boat- just in case. It’s still uncomfortable, but we make peace with the situation.
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For the next two days, we lived on a klotok, the local wooden boats named for the banging report from their two cylinder engine. Longer than Totem, but only 2/3 the beam, these narrow vessels are suited to river travel. They have two levels: the crew resides on the lower level, while we spread out on top. All but the bow is shaded by a cover; a table and chairs are set up for us to relax in, but everyone gravitates toward sitting Indonesian style on the bow instead.
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Yosi is our guide; he has been bringing visitors up the river for years, and made all the arrangements for our trip. Suhardi is our captain; he’s been running this boat for a couple of years now, but the crewman- his brother, Herman- arrived just a couple of weeks ago from their family home on Java. Ari, the cook, rounds out the crew. She has the hardest job on board, preparing meals over kerosene burners in a cramped galley that lacks standing headroom- but she does it with a shy smile. The kids gobble up her fried banana snacks, and Siobhan chats her up for more thermoses of hot water for tea.
Just a short distance up the Kumai, we turn off into a tributary. Our surroundings quickly shift from dusty port town to jungle fringe. The water is the color of melted milk chocolate; birds call out from behind the nipah palms at the rivers edge.
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As we progress up the river, the breadth narrows, and interesting wildlife starts to come out. We learn to watch for rustling in the trees, as the first of many primates peek through the leaves when we go by. Yosi enthusiastically tells us how poisonous this snake is…not that we were contemplating swimming.
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The girls are avid birdwatchers, and spot a striking blue kingfisher and a sea eagle circling overhead. They sit with our field guides and make notes and drawings in their journals, capturing for themselves the marvels that float past our gaze.
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We spend the morning reaching Camp Leakey, up yet another tributary river- although it narrows to the point we can touch palms on both sides. Heart of Darkness?
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It’s the “dry” season (which still means frequent downpours, just…fewer), so the boardwalk through the swampy borders of the jungle stand nearly two meters over muck.
The Camp itself looks like a set for the spoof of a 70s wildlife program. The visitors center is dusty and dated, but full of fascinating and grim information about the situation faced by orangutans today. Native only to Borneo and Sumatra, they are endangered, with habitat rapidly being lost to palm oil plantations. They are killed in the wild at a startling rate. Orangs who have spent formative time in human care, from poaching for pets and willful habitat extraction, need orientation- and then supplementation- to survive back in their own environment.
We walk under the canopy, down a trail that winds to a feeding area, where we hope to see our first semi-wild orangutans. Yosi warns us about how to interact: they are cautionary instructions. Don’t try to touch an orang. Don’t feed them. Don’t approach closer than five meters- and hold still if they choose to come closer to you. He says many of the guides choose to let their guests do all those things, but it’s not right. Our short term experience is not worth the cost to their long term health, and there’s also the simple fact that although they are a fraction of our stature, the orangs have a multiple of our strength, and unpredictable. The environment we are entering is theirs, not ours. And oh, it is theirs!
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When we arrive, the afternoon meal service is under way, and orangs are taking turns helping themselves to a small mountain of bananas that have been set out by the caretakers. They watch us, and we watch them, as a series of orangs pass through.
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There is a pecking order we don’t understand, but can intimate- larger, dominant orangs command respect, and the platform rapidly clears to make way for some or the larger orang personalities.
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Guides and visitors total about a dozen other spectators to the scene. All but the guides share our delight, although the orangs themselves are nonchalant. It’s not that we aren’t noticed; it’s that their body language tells us again that as a matter of fact, they do own this popsicle stand.
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Also watching the orangs closely behind is a sneaky gibbon. He (she?) swings circus-style through the orangs otherwise languid snacking with a frantic air that’s comical- spiriting away a handful of bananas to much out of reach in a nearby tree. His deadpan countenance adds to the comedy, and he entertains us all - breaking the spell of our transfixed gawping.
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Yosi had planned a hike through the jungle, but we spend our time instead lingering at the station. It is too hard to pull ourselves away from the personalities: the younger males who scatter when the dominant orang returns. The females, and their babies, who show deference to large male, but don’t run from his shadow. The mother and child, who take their handfuls of bananas and sit in a nearby tree to snack, alternately nursing and playing while giving space for others to come onto the platform. The unspeakable cuteness of the youngsters.
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Then, there’s “the look.” The one where you gaze in each other’s eyes and feel a flash of recognition.
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We finally depart away as the orangs fade back into the jungle. Back on the klotok, the children are abuzz. It has been an overwhelming day. Dinner is served by candlelight dinner, then the table and chairs are spirited away and replaced with padded rolls to sleep on in the evening. We curl into our netted nests, and fall asleep. Just when we think our day couldn’t be more full, fireflies appear. Magic.
Other than waking in the wombs of our mosquito netted beds, the second day is a riff on the first.
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We had planned some hiking through the jungle, but decide to forgo the treks for more time with the orangs- there will always be time for a walk somewhere. This feels fleeting, and does not disappoint. We visit other camps on our way down river, and watch more feeding platform antics, marveling further at these incredible great apes.
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With hours of orang gazing under our belts, some of us might have gotten a little comfortable being in close range…although I’m not sure Siobhan actually noticed when this mother and baby zoomed behind her.
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It’s easier to look around and appreciate some of the details. I notice that the Dyak staff bringing bananas out to the platform area use tree bark handles on their PVC buckets. The teenaged helper doesn’t know which tree it’s from, but the adult with him- his father?- immediately points to one of a stand of trees behind us. Of course.
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Heading back down river, a series of exceptional views and sightings unfold from our perch on the klotok. The visitor center at Camp Leakey indicated proboscis monkeys were more rare than orangutans, but we see several on riverside trees, and even one swimming across. According to our captain, they like to cross when the boats go by, because the sound and movement keep crocodiles at bay.
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Their bodies look too ungainly for the trees they jump between, but it’s clearly no problem- even with a baby along for the ride. This flying leap looked like it was at least 20 meters.
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Coming back into the Kumai at sunset, we can see the crew begins to relax. Too soon, apparently, because the boat’s propeller is snagged in a fishing net (shortly after being told it’s no problem, because the net is supposed to be several meters below the water’s surface). Sorting out the net takes a couple of hours, and the gentle handling of one very irate fisherman, to untangle it all. Suhardi ends up diving into the river with a knife- no mask, and no light to see with anyway- and cut it off. Being caught in a net seemed like one of the inevitabilities of cruising in Indonesia, although this isn’t how I thought it would happen.
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Back on Totem, we talk about the last couple of days, and attempt to process the indelible experiences we’ve just had. The river, the wildlife, and- in the next post, more about  what's happening to the water and on shore- it has made very real for us the looming threat that exists. It feels like a privileged and tragic look into a disappearing world.
Next- Up the river part 2: the drama

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